Tolkien's 'feudal socialism'

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BY JOHN NEBAUER

JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy has defined the parameters of the fantasy genre since its first volume was published in 1954. It helped inspire fantasy role-playing that began with Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s. It was placed first in the Waterstone poll of the most popular Western novels of the 20th century. It's surprising then that Hollywood has taken so long to cash in, with The Fellowship of the Ring to be released on December 26.

For those who have not read the trilogy, the main story is reasonably simple. A ring of great magical power, forged and lost centuries previously by the evil Lord Sauron, is found by a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. Hobbits are a quiet, peaceful rural people who farm, smoke pipeweed and enjoy good, plain food (and are about three feet tall).

The ring enslaves its bearer to the will of the Dark Lord who forged it. The ring passes to Bilbo's adopted son Frodo. Bilbo's friend, the wizard Gandalf, discovers the nature of the ring in Frodo's possession. It is decided at a great council that the ring must be destroyed so that Sauron's evil will pass from the world.

The remainder of the story details the journey of Frodo and his eight companions, the Fellowship of the Ring (for which the first book in the trilogy is named), to defeat Sauron and destroy the ring. On the way they are opposed by various evil creatures such as orcs, giant spiders and Sauron's most terrible servants, the Nazgul.

The Nazgul had been kings whom Sauron corrupted and they attempt to gain the ring for their master. Sauron brings war upon the kingdoms of the west, but without the ring his conquest cannot be complete. While Sauron is at war to the west, Frodo and Sam enter Sauron's realm of Mordor. The ring falls into the fire in which it was forged, and is destroyed.

Though Tolkien stated his dislike of literary allegory on several occasions, some have seen within his writings criticism of capitalist society. During the Vietnam War period, Lord of the Rings was almost required reading for many counter-culturalists. This critique is supposed to have been based on Tolkien's obvious love of forests.

In 1972, Tolkien wrote, "In all my works, I take the part of trees as against all their enemies". The wisest creatures depicted in Lord of the Rings are elves, and the power of Tolkien's elves are bound up with the forest. Sam Gamgee, Frodo's gardener and closest friend, says of the elves, "they seem to belong here ... [w]hether they've made the land or the land's made them, it's hard to say".

At one point, two of Frodo's companions stumble into the forest of Fangorn. There they encounter Treebeard the Ent (which is a "tree-herd"). Treebeard rouses the Ents, who are losing trees to feed the forges of nearby Isengard, to save their forest from the forces of the wizard Saruman. Treebeard describes Saruman as having "a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment".

In Lord of the Rings, there's more than just an admiration of nature, there is a deep distrust of all things "unnatural". When Saruman is suspected of having interbred orcs and humans to create a far more powerful breed of orc, Treebeard reacts by saying, "That would be a black evil!".

Some see the ring itself as a symbol of the negative impact of technology on the environment. Gandalf calls for the destruction of the ring because to wield it is to turn the user to evil. During the debate at the Council of Elrond, Elrond argues against those who argue to use the ring. "The very desire of it corrupts the heart. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, he would then set himself upon Sauron's throne". Some anti-war activists in the 1960s saw this as a warning against the use of nuclear weapons, others a warning against the evil of technology in general.

Tolkien certainly did not have nuclear weapons in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings. Tolkien began writing it prior to the second world war. Much of the environmental destruction and urban sprawl that repelled Tolkien as a youth finds an echo in his writing. But such railing against technology in general is at best wishful thinking and at worst dangerous.

To revert to pre-industrial forms of production, even if it were possible, would condemn millions to death through starvation and disease. Unlike the ring, it does matter who controls technology. Production for social need rather than private profit would give rise to the possibility of environmentally friendly production. Ejecting the Saurons from the corporate boardrooms across the globe may indeed make the ring something that we can use safely.

Tolkien was a conservative Catholic, and his conservatism is a strong thread within Lord of the Rings. Women are virtually absent as central characters, a reflection of the nearly all-male society of English academia between the wars. He was extremely conservative in social outlook, with an almost feudal belief in respect for one's "superiors".

Sam Gamgee continually refers to Frodo as "Mr Frodo" or "sir" to the point that, in the words of Ursula le Guin, "one begins to have mad visions of founding a Hobbit Socialist Party".

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described an ideological trend during the formative years of capitalist development that they characterised as "feudal socialism". The old feudal aristocracy, in reaction to their ejection from political power, criticised the new capitalist class' exploitation of the emerging working class.

But, as Marx and Engels observed, "the feudalists forgot that they exploited under circumstances and conditions that were quite different, and that are now antiquated". The result was "half lamentation, half lampoon, half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart's core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history".

Though Tolkien's writings are not a revival of feudal socialism, his work is a reaction to the same phenomena. Though he did not use allegory, he did not deny that his writing was influenced by what was happening around him.

He survived two world wars, the first as a soldier in the trenches, and most of his friends perished in the fighting. Though the following passage from Lord of the Rings does not describe trench warfare, it does convey the horror Tolkien must have endured: "All about the streets and lanes behind the Gate it tumbled down, small round shot that did not burn. But when men ran to learn what it might be, they cried aloud or wept. For the enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting... They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain."

Tolkien was a child at the beginning of the 20th century, and experienced the latter stages of the impact the industrial revolution had on the English countryside. His childhood alternated between a countryside increasingly encroached upon by industrialisation, and the packed, soot encrusted buildings of Birmingham. His hobbits and their rustic land of the Shire were an idealised rural, parochial England, ruled in the end by a wise and benevolent king.

But it was an England that never truly existed. Though some feudal lords took seriously their theoretical duty to protect and care for their vassals, all feudal lords extracted feudal dues from their serfs. They could not otherwise remain feudal lords.

The works of Marxist historian Rodney Hilton describe a medieval England simmering with class tensions that at times exploded into open struggle, in particular the peasant uprising of 1381. The punishment for rebellion was usually painful and always fatal. Wat Tyler, a leader of the 1381 uprising was killed while parleying with the king, his head and those of other rebel leaders were made to adorn London Bridge. The rules of chivalry in warfare did not apply to rebellious peasants. Mandatory sentencing indeed has a long history.

Lord of the Rings is a work of wonderful imagination and vivid language. As a modern work of mythology, it is without peer. But it is not a book in which to seek analyses of the world's problems. If you want political and social analysis, stick to Green Left Weekly.

From Green Left Weekly, December 12, 2001.
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